“A New Song”

September 11, 2011


Joel 2: 18-29

Isaiah 43:16-21


The prophet Joel listens as from a distance comes the low hum of destruction:

What the cutting locust left,

the swarming locust has eaten.

What the swarming locust left,

the hopping locust has eater,

and what the hopping locust left,

the destroying locust has eaten.


The prophet Joel watches as locusts arrive like an invading army, a powerful nation that lays waste the land:

A nation has invaded my land,

powerful and innumerable;

its teeth are lions’ teeth,

and it has the fangs of a lioness.

It has laid waste my vines,

and splintered my fig trees;

it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;

their branches have turned white.

This is a picture of utter devastation. The people stand vulnerable and helpless.

Ten years ago, as the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed before our disbelieving eyes, as we heard reports from Washington, DC and Pennsylvania, we felt that same sense of being under attack by an enemy that was unknown, different from any previous enemy that we had been trained to fear.

You remember where you were, you remember what you felt when you heard the news.

At the time I lived along the quiet shoreline of Connecticut—two hours from New York City—in a small town that usually seemed a world away. I quickly discovered that I was ministering to people who had worked at the World Trade Center, who had colleagues who died there. I was ministering to people whose friends died at the Pentagon. I was ministering to a congregation that, probably much like this congregation, was reacting with a sense of unreality, of uncertainty, and of fear.

Words failed us in those days.

In Connecticut, we held a town-wide worship service on September 12. Clergy spoke and prayed. But what was probably most important was that we were together. We didn’t want words—we wanted one another. Young members of the church who had moved to New York left the city in its chaos for the familiarity of “home.”  Later that week we gathered again, simply lighting candles and standing together in silence in a light rain.

I’m told that people here in Iowa City gathered in City Park, lit candles and slowly walked for peace in silence because, really, what could we say?

In the silence of those days, as we searched for words we found something else. We found one another. It seemed that while we had lost our innocence and our sense of invulnerability, we had discovered each other. Remember? Remember how in those days following the attacks there were neither Democrats nor Republicans; neither rich nor poor; neither Muslim, nor Christian, nor Jew. We were Americans—troubled, stricken, but united and supported by the good will of the entire world.

Alexander Hamilton once wrote that America is an experiment and the whole world is watching to see whether a society can be based on the principles of freedom rather than fear.

For a short time it seemed that we might set aside our fear and promote freedom.

That seems so long ago now.

We soon recovered our voice.

We soon found words.

We know the story:

A couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, someone wrote in the dust of the World Trade Center, “May President Bush and God give us our revenge.” As if those were the words we were waiting for, we moved toward a war of choice in Iraq, a war that had nothing to do with those who attacked us nor with the weapons of mass destruction we were told were there. Today the civilian death toll in Iraq is well over 100,000. In Afghanistan it exceeds 8,000. And as the front page of the Daily Iowan reminded us on Friday, referring to the loss of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, “10 years later, 6,220 more Americans dead.”

We began a demonic descent into becoming a nation of torture. And while vice-president Cheney has no regrets about this, the use of torture has made us not safer but morally bankrupt.

We began a decade long increase in suspicion, hatred, and vilification of Muslims and Islam. The Center for American Progress recently exposed the origins of this in what they call a “small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing.” Their report pointed to a small group of little-known foundations that in the past ten years have in the past decade provided more than $40 million to groups promoting Islamophobia.

We have been fighting two wars that were not paid for, leaving a staggering amount of debt for coming generations—our children and grandchildren—and at the same time the gap between rich and poor in our nation has grown dramatically.

Our politics have become filled with an animosity that is unlike anything in my lifetime. We are quick to declare that “those who are not with us” are “cowards” or “treasonous.”

EJ Dionne summed it up this past week when he wrote: “The last decade was a detour that left our nation weaker, more divided, and less certain of itself.”

We found words, but we seem to have lost one another.

If we lost our innocence ten years ago, we have lost so much more since then.

For ten years we have sung a song of anger, of fear, of conflict, of suspicion and of hatred. Rage that led us to turn on others eventually has turned back upon us.

Now it is time.

This is the day.

It is time to sing a new song.

The prophet Joel’s vision saw beyond destruction to the restoration that God would bring:

I will repay you for the years

that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter…

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

and praise the name of the Lord your God…

And my people shall never again be put to shame.

While the swarming, hopping, cutting, destroying locusts of fear, anger, suspicion, hatred, and revenge have eaten away at this past decade, even now we are called to look toward God’s redemption.

On this day of remembrance we need to turn our gaze and look forward once more.

The call toward the future is one of the gifts at the heart of our faith. Isaiah’s grand religious vision given to a nation in despair and disarray told of a God who was about to do a new thing. The living God goes so far as to say, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”

Remembrance has its place.

Repentance turns us away from old ways.

And faith calls us beyond remembrance and repentance to the renewal that brings life. God is bringing about something new. We should struggle to grasp a glimpse of it and live our lives accordingly.
It’s never easy to learn a new song. It takes time. It takes practice. The familiar old melodies and words tempt us to simply repeat what we know. But churches such as ours—communities of searching hearts, thoughtful minds, engaged spirits—churches such as this one must find new music and fresh words and teach them to others.

We can sing of interfaith cooperation—telling the possibility that Christians, Jews, and Muslims actually can work together for the common good, can not only respect one another but actually love one another.

We can sing of human dignity—continuing to call for an end to torture, for the basic respect of human rights and liberties not only abroad but also in our own nation so that freedom is not limited by our fear.

We can sing of peace—the vision and hope that is still in us and among even when the possibility seems so distant.

We can sing of love--the difficult task of seeking to understand. We have consistently underestimated or ignored the destructive power of fervent commitments held by people who sense that they have no hope in this life.

We can sing of resurrection—the power that is given to those who will look again at their lives and their world and see the new, previously unconsidered and untried possibilities. to those who will take on the mental, physical, and especially the spiritual work of building a future for this nation rather than futilely trying to rebuild its past.

Now is the time to move beyond remembrance and repentance toward the renewal of our lives, our nation, our world.

This is the day to sing a new song whose choruses are of cooperation, dignity, peace, love, and resurrection.

Now is the time.

This is the day.

It is time to sing a new song.